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On a rainy Friday morning, Mellody Hobson took to the podium at the University of Southern California graduation to call for tolerance and courage in love from the class of 2015.
“Just add bravery,” she said, noting a three-word command that has guided her since childhood. “Bravery allows us to push beyond the boundaries that pulled us back from living the lives that we want. … Your bravest self will be your best self.”
The chairwoman of DreamWorks Animation, who is also a director of Estee Lauder and Starbucks Corporation, first asked the graduates to put themselves in the shoes of Felix Baumgartner, who set the world record for skydiving in October 2012, at an estimated 24 miles, and also became the first person to break the sound barrier without vehicular power on his descent.
“Sitting 24 miles up is not that different from where you’re sitting now,” she told the graduating class. “You’re probably feeling eager, excited and, like Felix, scared. The world may look bigger than it’s ever looked, and you may feel smaller than you’ve ever felt.” Of whatever hesitation Felix had in letting go of his gear at the time, she said, “It wasn’t because he was not brave; it was because you cannot be brave without fear. Despite a racing heart, extremely sweaty palms, Felix did disconnect the oxygen, and he put his faith in his preparation and parachute, and just like you’re doing today, he jumped into the great unknown.”
Hobson, who is also the president of the Chicago-based money management firm Ariel Investments, specifically encouraged “bite-size bravery, which requires smaller but equally important leaps,” such as pushing past others’ limited expectations. In fact, “that doesn’t always mean charging the hill with your fist in the air, sometimes it will mean not charging the hill,” she said, pointing out how the historic Selma march took three attempts to be successful, including Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s turnaround during the second try.
“I hope we can be better at judging people not on their assumptions and appearances, but on their achievements and actions,” she said, calling for tolerance of even those in neighboring cubicles at their future workplaces. “Just as I told you that you can be or do anything, I want you to believe that that’s true of everyone and anyone. … It’s so easy to get trapped in a self-selected subset of humanity. Yes, it feels comfortable, but it’s also extraordinarily confining. There’s a whole world out there — why limit ourselves? … Do more that just accept diversity; seek out diversity. I promise you it will make you more interesting and, basically, smarter.”
The wife of George Lucas, who sat in the audience with DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, offered three goal-reaching equations that “even the students who took the selfie class will understand what I’m talking about.”
First, “hard work plus bravery equals success,” she said. “Don’t pretend that you know more than you do. … At the same time, don’t pretend to know less than you do either. … I know this can be very hard for women and minorities desperate to fit in. … A better attitude is, ‘This is who I am and I have value, and if you don’t like it, that’s fine, but this is who I am.'”
Second, “imagination plus bravery equals creativity,” as she said the arts “are near and dear to my near and dear,” Lucas. “Stories serve an essential purpose in our communities and our lives. … [Star Wars] told a story about a choice between being selfish and being compassionate.”
And third, “love plus bravery equals happiness. Other commencement speakers will tell you to be passionate about something; I’m telling you to be passionate about someone. … It took me a long time to be as brave in my personal life as I was in my professional life, and that’s because to be brave in love means opening yourself up to the possibility of heartbreak. … Then I met George. People talk about soulmates; I met my mind’s friend. And since I always trust my mind when it told me to leap, so did my heart.”
Hobson concluded by quoting activist and NAACP co-founder W. E. B. Du Bois, who wrote in a letter to his boarding school-bound daughter: “‘You are in one of the world’s best schools, in one of the world’s greatest modern empires. Deserve it, then. Be frank, honest and fearless. The main thing is the you between the clothes and skin. Don’t shy away from new experiences. Take the cold bath bravely.'”
“‘Above all, remember your father loves you and he believes in you,'” she added. “That is my hope for all of you: that you are brave, and that you are loved.”
In addition to Hobson, the ceremony also presented honorary degrees to Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, California attorney general Kamala Harris, health care policy expert Leonard Schaeffer, conductor and composer Michael Tilson Thomas and crystallographer Ada E. Yonath.
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